Ever since getting my first Mac, I’ve always felt a sense of “difference” between myself and everyone I’d talk to. Back then, people would gather on IRC channels with the only sign of relatability between me and them being that we had chosen an Apple computer over the various amounts of other. Occasionally, we’d all talk about the new iPhones that were announced, the new OS updates, how certain apps looked promising, even themeing our systems – it was all great. I even feel a sense of nostalgia simply sitting here typing about it and remembering the moments that seem so lost as everyone has moved on with their lives. However, there’s always been a feeling of separation – at least for me – that I regret for allowing myself to feel and “fall victim” to.
It’s nothing heinous or dastardly – it’s simply that my race failed to mean anything in these moments. Not that I was seen as “the black guy” or that I was treated any differently, but that things were inherently different, odd, or simply misunderstood whenever conversations outside of tech were to take place. Meaning, my blackness and the culture therein would be something that I’d shield out of fear that I’d be seen as weird or a sense of loneliness because no one would be able to properly engage and just hit me with the classic “oh cool” to something I’m invested in. Not that I would seek out attention on this front, but that so much of these interactions were built and manifested around the idea that I was hiding who I actually am. That I would prevent myself from talking about the seventh Wayne mixtape that had dropped that hour, AJ & Free leaving 106 and Park, Ludacris cutting his iconic afro seemingly out of nowhere. All of those things being too out of left field for me to even think of mentioning. Knowing that no one would know what I’m talking about or even understand the cultural impact of any of them and why they were big topics for me or anyone who had mild interest in hip-hop or black culture.
Thinking of these things years later, it managed to force me into a state of realization that it wasn’t simply a case of a wrong crowd, but has is roots in a problem that is still on display in the tech world today. So much of what is shown in tech outwardly floats around the ideas of idolizing pop music, stealing the identity of hip-hop and using it for a marketable gain, and making sure that the faces pushing these things forward are white, but have a person somewhere in there that can be pointed to when making a diversity chart. There’s no problem – and this is not to downplay their success – with someone choosing to be a tech-figure first and foremost and just so happening to be black. You could even argue that it’s more noble than someone on the opposite side of the fence. However, the reality for someone who doesn’t identify as tech-first and has to live a life that is built around black culture is that they look at all these things and feel as if they don’t belong or that they aren’t welcomed.
Throughout my life in the tech world, I’ve made mental notes of one thing – and that’s the no one wants to deal with you when your interests do not align with theirs. Which is fine – that’s business – but when my culture defines who I am and there are so few people who even bother to understand my culture, there’s a clear and visible line drawn in the sand. I can talk to you about music apps and why I like the design of them, but the second I mention the bass in a rap album that isn’t made by MF DOOM, I’m seen as an “other” yet again. The moment anything I say mentions a semblance of a lifestyle that is foreign to the one so many have experienced, it’s back to being cast away as being “other.”
In tech, there’s a clear lack of understanding and a very evident trend that says people rather engross themselves in ignorance. For example, if you don’t understand someone’s culture, the things they like, there’s no attempt to know or care because it’s easier to just not talk to that person. This is how friend groups work, but there’s a problem when everything in a field you’re interested in says you’ll have the most success when you’re a carbon copy of what’s popular now. There’s an entire group of people who strive for acceptance or at least areas of real representation in tech and simply cannot find it. They get jobs at these organizations and start-ups and get treated as the “black guy they have to say yo to” or the “guy I swear around to show that I’m cool and hip” or the worst of them all “the guy I have to make think I don’t care about a n y t h i n g.” Putting these faces forward doesn’t speak of you trying to include us into your environments, it makes us feel like you are aware that we are so immensely uncomfortable and you’re trying to mimic it back to us. That you can one second talk to your boss and have a cordial meeting, but the second someone of color says hi to you around the coffee maker, you have to respond with a “yo!” as if it’s a greeting.
This isn’t to say woe is me or that I feel personally attacked. Honestly, it feels like it serves a purpose higher than all of that. It’s to say that being in tech and being black or whatever you identify with and as, it’s okay to be yourself. Even now, when you look around and the only creators you see talked about are white men who had the luxury of going to school without having to worry about paying for classes themselves, or ones that straight up put a microscope against an identity that you don’t have any relation to – you still have a place. Your voice is unique, your story is unique, and the way you traverse the tech world is what can make it easier and better for people after you. Don’t fall for the same story I fell for and try to fall into place by listening to EDM, folk music, and bullshit like The Fray (unless that’s truly what you like), but pick yourself up and feel fine flaunting your musical tastes, wearing your hair the way you do, and keeping yourself grounded in how you showcase yourself to the world.
This doesn’t only apply to black culture, of course. This applies to almost everything that doesn’t fill that “white male under 35” demographic. Tech is, without a shroud of a doubt, one of the most progressive communities in the world today. However, it has a lot of growth to do, or at least a lot of growth to review. There are things that don’t add up, don’t aid in the quest for inclusion, and ultimately, do the polar opposite of what you aim to do.
Tech is a large canvas that encompasses so much. From gaming, to fashion, to even being a mainstay of pop culture. Being able to wear your own identity on your shoulder is what can help you stand apart. It should go without saying that being different and not falling in-line with everyone else’s point of view or cultural background makes you interesting, but when you deal with a tech world that has shown the exact opposite, it gets hard to realize. Tech isn’t bad – far from it – it’s just got a lot of growing to do.